After twelve years of blood and guts, AMC’s post-apocalyptic zombie epic The Walking Dead (TWD) is finally being laid to rest. With almost all of the original cast long torn to shreds since its 2010 debut, and much of the show’s dramatic events a distant memory, TWD can be likened to a post-apocalyptic General Hospital, melodrama and all. But even following the departure of main character Sheriff Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) in the show’s ninth season, TWD still draws millions of American viewers per week, and more on streaming platforms and a massive international market, sufficient to spawn two spinoff shows, with more in the works, and a series of video games. Fans pack the halls of comic conventions to hear cast members and creators speak. Even as its ratings have fallen in the later seasons, TWD remains the most-watched show on cable TV now, or ever. What accounts for this massive interest in such a grim topic, leading millions to spend their precious few hours outside work watching other people tormented, brutalized, and mauled to death?
“The mass is not merely passive,” writes C.L.R. James. “It decides what it will see.” Popular culture is a great feedback loop through which the dreams, desires, and darkest fears of billions of people are served up by ruling class institutions like Hollywood. While entertainment corporations serve to reinforce predominant values friendly to the ruling class, there is no grand conspiracy; they are above all in the business of making money, and must therefore give people what they want, or else their competitor will. Mass cultural goods, then, depict “if only negatively… some of the deepest feelings of the masses, but represent them within the common agreement — no serious political or social questions which would cause explosions.” The most popular entertainment of our moment, then, teaches us a great deal about the people who consume it, as it simultaneously educates us in the means by which ruling class organs decipher dissatisfaction with our world and striving for a better one, while attempting to neutralize it.
If James is correct, we can surmise that millions of people, including some in our families, neighborhoods, and workplaces, identify on some level with the travails of small bands of survivors navigating the nihilistic hell of a zombie apocalypse, a world where it is not the zombies, but those condemned to live, who constitute the titular walking dead.
So just what is this television show that has held the notorious attention spans of American viewers for over a decade? TWD is derived from the comic series of the same name created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Tony Moore, which debuted in 2003, and which the show has followed with varying degrees of fidelity across its staggering 193 issues. Kirkman and Moore originally pitched a science fiction epic set in the 27th century, when minerals from another planet destroy what had become a utopian society on Earth. It was rejected by the Image Comics publishing house. The duo then proposed a period piece set in the aftermath of George Romero’s original Night of the Living Dead film, but were encouraged to develop their own unique zombie universe set in the present, largely to have sole proprietary rights over the content. They did, but were told their story was too ordinary. So Kirkman got creative.
“Look, you’re right,” he told Image, “it does need a hook and that’s why after a few issues I’m gonna reveal that this is actually an alien invasion story. That these zombies are actually put on Earth by aliens and it’ll eventually be revealed that it’s this really cool sci-fi epic involving alien invasion. You know, the seeds will be planted very early on, but it will be a while before it’s actually revealed.” Kirkman, who had no intention of writing such a plot twist into TWD, was bluffing. It paid off; the comic series quickly became a critical and commercial success, and the alien invasion was soon forgotten. Kirkman and Moore had tapped into a profound cultural appetite for stories exploring the dissolution of society, daily life as a Herculean struggle, and above all, meditations on how people are transformed by the hardships they must endure and the choices they are forced to make to survive. Despite their publisher’s concerns, they had in fact created a novel story unique to their time and place. But the figure of the walking dead is nothing new.
From Zonbis to Night of the Living Dead
As many scholars have pointed out, unlike the classical figures of European gothic horror–ghosts, werewolves, vampires, Frankenstein’s monster, and all the rest–the zombie mythology is a distinct product of the New World, tracing its origins to the slave society of the French colony Saint-Domingue, known today as Haiti. In his masterpiece The Black Jacobins, James describes life in Saint-Domingue as remarkable, even among slave societies, for its brutality, squalor, and high rate of mortality from violence, disease, and malnourishment. Under the draconian 1685 Negro Code, the “slave received the whip more certainly than they received their food,” alongside far more ghastly tortures which codified grisly sadism into the cold execution of nascent managerial science. Though black Haitians were able to abolish slavery and shake off direct European rule through the slave revolution that lasted from 1791-1804, the horrors of slavery left an indelible mark on Haitian culture, seen in the original story of the zonbi.
The original walking dead of Haitian lore derived from the Afro-Carribean belief in an afterlife, symbolizing the transcendence of slavery to deliverance back to Africa. But this possibility of a felicitous hereafter also came with the threat of the dead being once more taken captive, whether as a punishment for suicide (a belief encouraged, in part, by slave drivers), or as innocent victims of the same avarice that drove enslavement. The creation of zombies is a complex Voodoo ritual overseen by the bokor, or Voodoo priest. In this belief system, one’s hapless soul could be enslaved in a bottle, and forced into spiritual labor for the bottle’s owner, or else one’s body itself could be seized upon and forced to perform arduous labor as the soul looks on helplessly, conscious but unable to intervene. A body that can be made to do anything the bokor wants is, of course analogous to the capitalist seizing control of bodies and putting them in motion for much of their waking time, which reached its most barbaric excesses under chattel slavery. The brutality of the slave trade in particular, and its central ethical issues surrounding the meaning of freedom and bondage, left sufficient impact on Haitian society that zonbi rituals are still performed in the present day, including the transmission of bottles purported to contain souls, and festivals where the trade in undead bodies is reenacted.
The practice of zonbi rituals, argues anthropologist Elizabeth McAlister, “diagnoses, theorizes, and responds mimetically to the long history of violent consumptive and dehumanizing capitalism in the Americas from the colonial period until the present.” The original incarnation of the zonbi represented a consuming fear of, and opposition to, compulsory service in the most brutal labor process known to human history, the West Indian slave trade, which stood as a cornerstone of the development of contemporary capitalism. In the present, the persistence of the zonbi in Haitian culture also demonstrates a pervasive identification with perpetually unfree souls among a critical mass of people subjected to sustained underdevelopment and imperialism.
It is among history’s many ironies that this cultural trope would be taken up with great gusto in the slave-built seat of imperialist power, the United States of America. Fittingly, the story of the zombie, as the undead came to be called, seems to have found its way into U.S. culture during the American occupation of Haiti, between 1915 and 1935. During this time Victor Halperin’s 1932 film White Zombie marked the creature’s Hollywood debut. Its villain is the Haitian sugar baron and Voodoo master Murder Legendre (Bella Lugosi), who commands a multiracial army of the undead. Jacques Tourneur’s 1943 film I Walked with a Zombie also attempts loyalty to the Haitian roots of zombie lore, setting the story at a formerly slaveholding sugar can plantation on a fictitious Caribbean Island, thematically evoking slavery through both symbolism and overt references to the island’s slave past. These films represent a bridge between the original Haitian iteration of the zombie and the distinct form it would assume when fully subsumed into American pop culture, thanks largely to George Romero.
Beginning with his 1968 Night of the Living Dead, the films of George Romero served as the template for the zombie film genre that took root in the United States and subsequently spread around the world. Spawned in the turbulence of the late 1960s, Romero’s zombie narratives enlist hordes of the undead as roving metonymy for the decay and brutality lurking beneath the shiny veneer of postwar American society. Romero cast black men and white women in leading roles, among the films only likeable characters, as the collapse of society is exacerbated, if not outright caused by, the toxic paternalism of the nuclear family (Night of the Living Dead), the crass materialism of consumer culture (Dawn of the Dead, 1978), and the suicidal drive of militarism (Day of the Dead, 1985).  The death of the black protagonist Ben (Duane Jones) in Night of the Living Dead, at the hands of a white posse who may or may not think he’s a zombie, has been widely likened to the contemporaneous assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The degree of scandal generated by this film in particular would be incomprehensible to most devotees of TWD, given that nothing in it remotely approaches the hyper-realistic gore that AMC gleefully splashes across the screen on an average Sunday night. Roger Ebert described viewing the film in a theater full of traumatized children, as calls for censorship dogged the film’s initial run. For better or worse, today’s kids would be excused for falling asleep.
Befitting both the international division of labor, and the deindustrialization plaguing much of the U.S. by the late 1960s, whereas Haitian zombies are productive laborers, American zombies are consumers. Not only do the living dead crave the flesh of the living, or, as specified by Dan O’Bannon’s 1985 punk rock masterpiece The Return of the Living Dead: “Braaains!” Romero’s zombies also return to “an important place in their lives,” which, in the case of his 1978 Dawn of the Dead, is the deliberately disorienting consumerist phantasmagoria of the American shopping mall. Dawn’s stupefied zombies bear an uncanny resemblance to dazed shoppers basking in the waning bounty of America’s postwar boom–though Romero is often given a bit too much credit for the profundity of this fairly common elitist aspersion on the supposedly philistine culture of middle-class America. Regardless, whether as workers rendered docile for their exploiters, or consumers stupefied by the goods they have traded their lives for, zombie mythology cuts to the heart of modernity, which is to say, of capitalism. “The only modern myth is the myth of the zombies,” write the dependably opaque Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, “motrified schizos, good for work, brought back to reason.”  Born of the most violent expression of the capitalist mode of production, the zombie genre inherently evokes the specter of class politics, social dissolution amid the chaos of capitalism, and the ethical quandaries of life under a mode of production where humans life is cheap and the lives of great masses of the Earth are simply a means to enrich a few.
The dynamism of Romero’s influence on the zombie genre lasted roughly two decades, with notable entries by directors like Lucio Fulci, who launched his own take on the genre with Zombi 2. The real horrors of the 1980s and 1990s, however, belonged to the living; the slasher film, catapulted to prominence by the success of John Carpenter’s 1978 Halloween, spawned numerous imitators and innovators. Whereas the zombie film depicts hoards of ghouls working in concert to menace organized bands of survivors, the slasher film evinces a cultural turn toward radical individualism; the killer almost always works alone, picking off isolated victims in secluded cabins or else that bastions of monadic despair, the American suburb. The triumph of the slasher over the zombie horde also reveals the shift in cultural apprehension of crime, from the act of dangerous classes of people produced by structural economic factors outside their control, which was a mainstream position amid the rebellions of the 1960s, toward a conception of the lawbreaker as an individual, pathological case with no economic cause, and no redress save for hard punishment. By the early 1990s, an increasingly campy and absurd take on the walking dead offered by Jim Booth’s 1992 Braindead and Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series was the only real innovation to be found in a sea of rip-offs and rehashing. The end of the Cold War and attendant inward turn of American society spawned a postmodern turn in horror, seen in self-referential exercises in deconstruction like Wes Craven’s 1996 Scream. This did not bode well for the class politics of the zombie horde. Instead, the undead had become a punchline.
We’re All Carriers
The turn of the century saw a reinvention of zombie film, thanks in large part to Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2003), itself spurred by the success of the Japanese Resident Evil video game series. Boyle in particular succeeded by shedding the goofy camp and shopworn clichés of an aging genre, to reimagine through gritty realism just how terrifying roving bands of the undead would actually be. Boyle also cultivated an atmosphere of sustained dread apart from the usual jump scares and gore, depicted the undead running full speed, which is widely cited as the scariest part of the film, and above all, rediscovered Romero’s insight that the worst thing about a zombie apocalypse could very well be the behavior of the living. Clearly indebted to 28 Days Later, The Walking Dead even begins the same way, with the protagonist waking up alone in the hospital, having missed the apocalypse altogether. Kirkman claims this was a coincidence, and it is not difficult to believe him; harking back to Romero at his best, this new genre of zombie films derived less of its substance from imagining society’s grisly collapse, and more from the fact it was already underway. This was part of a growing cultural sensibility that the end of the world is not a speculative event in the future that we must imagine, but a process through which we are presently living.
AMC’s The Walking Dead premiered on October 31, 2010, part of a weeklong rollout in 120 countries. The show became an overnight commercial and critical success. (Spoilers ahead.) Millions of viewers were drawn each week to the serialized story of Sheriff Rick Grimes, a cop who was shot in the line of duty and subsequently hospitalized, only to wake up in the aftermath of the fall, as it is called on TWD, with no idea what had hit him or the world. An unlikely hero, Grimes begins his odyssey weakened, disoriented, and scantily clad. He has no greater objective save for finding his wife and son, and bumbles through the series premier learning the realities of the new world the hard way at almost every juncture. Doomed by his ineptitude in this new world Grimes is saved only by a chance encounter with a motley crew of survivors who have formed an unsteady alliance. They have set up a camp outside Atlanta in an impossibly indefensible position that characterizes the amateurism of the survivors in the show’s early days. After proving his mettle, Grimes is welcomed back to the camp, only to discover his wife Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) and son Carl (Chandler Riggs) are living there, along with his former cop partner and best friend Shane Walsh (Jon Bernthal), who told Lori that Rick had died, as an overture to beginning a relationship with her.
The stage is thus set for Peyton Place plus zombies. But one detail sets the show apart and lends it a nastiness so suitable for our moment. Under Grimes’s leadership (contested by Walsh, in a predictable clash of wills which the latter will not survive), the survivors make their way to the Center for Disease Control office in Atlanta, searching for answers and leadership. Instead, they find a lone scientist on the brink of suicide, who lets Grimes in on a chilling secret: “We’re all carriers.” Everyone is infected. Following the ordinary playbook, of course, TWD’s zombie bites turn living people into the walking dead, but only because they cause death. Turning, as the process is known, is also the necessary outcome of any death that does not destroy the human brain. In short, everyone will turn. There is no escape, no illusions that a better future can be built free from the scourge of zombification. The resurgence of the zombie, that undead avatar of capitalism’s deadly contradictions, has come to define a moment when no future is possible save for the end of the world, already in progress. All the living can do is ward off contamination by those who have already succumbed to the end, for as long as they can, until they too succumb to the inevitable.
Fear the Living
Kirkman later claimed to regret the scientist’s big reveal; TWD is, after all, not concerned with the how or why of social collapse, but the obtrusive reality of the end of the world, and how people navigate it. Even the dead are generally just an excuse to talk about the living. The characters who aren’t killed off early in the narrative generally become adept at handling all but the largest groups of the zombies single-handedly. By the later seasons, death at the hands of a walker, as the zombies are called, is a hazard akin to getting hit by a car in our world. TWD’s protagonists, however, find much worthier adversaries among other survivors. “Fight the dead,” ran the show’s tagline, beginning in the second season, “fear the living.” The show’s narrative arc pits Grimes’s gang against one micro-society after another of humans reduced to sociopathic survival machines. Despite episodic flashes of idealism, to defeat these external threats the show’s protagonists must also embrace wanton brutality, duplicity, and the winner-take-all survival of the fittest. Like all the others, Grimes’s tribe organizes in a small insular unit, viewing all outsiders as a mortal threat, or in the very least, not their problem. Midway through the show, they are indecipherable from their worst foes. Thus, after spelling out the futurelessness of humanity in scientific argot, Kirkman only regrets overstating his case; the scientist’s secret simply puts fine a point on the mean-spirited nihilism that characterizes TWD’s entire outlook.
In The Walking Dead, the sentimentalism of humanity’s more prosperous days is not simply anachronistic, it is a death sentence. Any threat, living or dead, who a TWD character hesitates to kill is likely the gravedigger of someone they love. Characters unwilling to face the harshness of the new world, such as Andrea (Laurie Holden), who refuses to destroy the brain of her dead sister, or Hershel Greene (Scott Wilson), who keeps zombies penned up in his barn awaiting a cure that is never coming, are dangerous liabilities to the rest of the survivors. Hardness in the face of unspeakable trauma is the show’s chief virtue; weakness a perennial lament. The young Carl becomes something of the TWD’s patron saint after killing his own mother to prevent her from turning, and then taking his own life when he is later bitten. The young people who come of age after the fall are depicted as having a much easier time adapting to its exigencies, much like the people who are spared the worst atrocities appear ill prepared to face up to what they must do, and who they must become, in order to survive.
This contrast is dramatized in Season 5, when Grimes and his battle-scarred band of survivors take up residence in the Alexandria Safe-Zone, a walled-in community that has weathered much of the hardships unfolding outside. At first, Alexandrians are scandalized by the violent and totalitarian tendencies Grimes and his cohort have brought with them, but soon enough, these traits are revealed to be the keys to survival. TWD’s ethical questions therefore do not concern the best possible course of action, since there is only one. The show instead explores whether or not characters are strong enough to follow it, and how the decisions they make change them over time. And it is not just the living who adapt; as time goes on, the zombies begin to roam in herds, exponentially increasing their destructive potential. The tribalism of Sheriff Rick Grimes and his tight band of loyalists, mimicking the vision of sheriff-led autonomous counties offered by the far-right Posse Comitatus movement, thus meets its worst foe in the form of the zombie herd, a roving band of social junk, whose collective action makes them the existential threat to civilization itself. In other words, it is a social outlook we could only call petty bourgeois. The return of class politics to mass culture in the U.S. and beyond, spurred by protracted economic crisis that has swelled the ranks of the lower classes, becomes negatively reflected by cultural goods like TWD, recast as a terrible threat to the prosperity of the self-determining, property-owning patriarchal family central to middle-class American ideology.
And while Grimes retaining his role as cop belies an impoverishment imagination that can imagine the end of human society but not the end of cops, the gradual reveal of what each character did before the fall constitutes one of TWD’s most interesting subplots, as it explores the great transformations that the imperative to survive forces people to adopt. The great tactician Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun) spent his days before the apocalypse delivering pizzas. The Governor (Brian Blake), the authoritarian leader of the town of Woodbury and central antagonist of Seasons 3 and 4, worked as a low-level office clerk, before coming into his own after the fall. Similarly, TWD’s arch antagonist Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) was an unemployed gym teacher living off of his wife as he played video games in their basement, prior to changing with the times and reinventing himself as the charismatic leader of a powerful extortion racket calling themselves the Saviors. Carol Peletier (Melissa McBride) was a housewife and the survivor of ongoing domestic abuse, before the death of her husband and the trials of life after the fall transformed her into a powerful warrior and leader. By contrast, Father Gabriel Stokes (Seth Gilliam) attempts to remain a priest after the fall; beset by doubts and haunted by his failures to live up to his calling amid the new reality, he experiences severe emotional distress that places his comrades in danger time and again.
Though it is mostly only teased at and disclosed in throwaway dialogue, the question of what TWD characters did for work before the fall cuts to the central appeal of the show to its record-breaking audience. When the sword-wielding warrior Michonne Hawthorne (Danai Gurira) was revealed to have been a lawyer before the fall, living in a bougie apartment and loving every minute of it, I recall speaking with a group of leftist TWD fans who were shocked that the show’s central black woman character, a fierce fighter who could handle any situation, was not of working-class origin. To me this missed the point altogether; TWD is not a show about people in our society who already possess the versatility they need to face a cruel world. With the exception of the lumpenproletarian misfit Daryl Dixon (Norman Reedus), whose life perhaps improved after the zombie apocalypse, TWD characters already suited for the hardships of the new world are, for better or worse, the show’s villains. Instead, characters like Michonne refer to real people who are today challenged by a world they are not prepared for. The real Michonne, out there somewhere today, buried herself in debt to earn a law degree, but cannot find well-paying work in a field that is at once racist, sexist, and saturated with degrees. She is instead forced to take on precarious legal work in an inhuman system, interacting with indigent clients in desperate need of assistance, but who she lacks the power to help, while she struggles to stay afloat and anxiously eyes a downward slide ever further down the class ladder. This point is made clearly enough by the first several seasons, characterized by one tragic blunder after another, befitting survivors attempting to navigate a new world with the mindset of the old.
We Are The Walking Dead
TWD’s ultimate appeal, then, is rooted in a decades-long race to the bottom in working and living conditions for most working people. In recent decades, the primary fixation for working-class life has increasingly been reduced to simply surviving, defined as avoiding consignment to a growing class excreted from the world of living wages altogether and doomed to a realm between life and death. The show’s enduring motif of before and after the fall typifies the collapsing expectations for increasing numbers of people who must put their hopes and dreams aside and be content to simply avoid the growing underclass. As an emotional Rick proclaims in the heat of Season 5: “We are the walking dead!” And isn’t the Romero-era zombie, clad in tattered clothing and reduced to its most animal functions, the ultimate symbol for both downward social mobility, and the crippling fear of its contagion among those closest to the bottom? The true revulsion of the zombie is not its dissimilarity, but its profound proximity to the living; the latter know that they are one chance event away from joining the ranks of the ragged hordes. Thus TWD viewers recognize their lives in the tragic but often heroic struggles of characters who represent everyday humans navigating the collapse of society, facing unprecedented decisions which pit their capacity for compassion and humanity against the will to survive at all costs in increasingly hostile terrain.
In keeping with James’s observation that popular culture must only recognize mass feelings negatively, and steer sentiments away from collective solutions, TWD is scrupulous in presenting a generalized condition of working-class life that clearly resonates with great numbers of viewers, but simultaneously reduces this general social condition to the struggles between insular pockets of individuals locked in zero sum combat. Central to this feat is the show’s ethos of cruelty and sadism, which drips from nearly every inch of film. Much like the process of turning disfigures and dehumanizes a person succumbing to the zombie virus, TWD attempts to make the very face of humanity despicable beyond recognition. Acts effacing life itself are not simply depicted on screen in ample doses, but are also practiced by the show’s makers themselves through their very mode of exposition. Just about any inkling of love or tenderness among characters, especially the highly-disposable minor character, only serves as the prelude to the violent demise of one or more of the sentimental parties in gut-wrenching spectacles which the camerawork greedily leans into, lingering and sharpening its focus on grotesque images of brutality and mutilation, and cutting away only to show the face of the survivors watching on in crippling anguish. Characters who believe in anything greater than the survival of themselves and a handful of those closest to them are quickly educated, by means of the most brutal tools at the show’s disposal, in the folly of anything approaching human solidarity. Surely this is not lost on the viewer, who has come to TWD with a set of ethical problems, and finds therein a deranged moral compass for navigating them.
Of particular note is the figure of Negan, a fast-talking sociopath loosely modeled after Henry Rollins, who gleefully murders those who resist his extortion racket in front of their loved ones as a calculated warning that all must comply. Like Grimes and the gang, Negan considers himself the good guy, forced to do whatever he can to protect his narrowly-defined community, a view that TWD’s showrunners may or may not share. And as Negan glibly wisecracks his way through grisly and highly-aestheticized executions carried out with a barbed wire-coated baseball bat, it is hard not to shake the suspicion that Negan and the showrunners actually have a lot in common. They both go to great lengths to rub their viewer’s nose in brutality visited upon innocent people they have grown attached to, just to turn around and make the point that society has regressed to the point where you must either pay Negan tribute or fight like hell to take his place. TWD’s use of extreme violence, far surpassing anything to ever appear on cable, to make this shopworn point, or no point at all, even earned the scorn of Romero himself. As the late genre pioneer later recounted, he refused offers to direct episodes of the show, clarifying the difference between their zombies: “I use them to sort of make fun of what’s going on in a number of societal events… I don’t use them to just create gore. Even though I use gore, that’s not what my films are about, they’re much more political.”
If only the Walking Dead franchise stayed out of politics. While the flagship show has largely refrained from documenting the fall, the 2015 spinoff Fear the Walking Dead, co-created by Kirkman, fills in the gaps and gives viewers a telling glimpse into how it all went down. Fear follows Travis Manawa, who is, like Grimes, a father simply trying to protect his family, this time amid the chaos of the fall. Set against the heavy-handed backdrop of Los Angeles, however, the fall itself becomes a reactionary fever dream. It starts when LAPD cops kill a zombie. They are immediately confronted by angry mobs of the living, who hysterically impede their ability to rescue humanity at this crucial juncture. The confrontation quickly spirals into an orgy of looting and arson, as the hapless protesters are picked off by the very zombies they would not allow the cops to protect them from. Looking on with wan disgust, the Manawa clan holes up in a small business owned by the Salzar family, hard-working Latino immigrants. That is, until arsonists force them to flee into the danger of life amid the fall, and we’re off to the races. Produced in the immediate aftermath of the 2014 rebellion in Ferguson and the national anti-cop movement that came to be known as Black Lives Matter, Fear the Walking Dead drew from these events, alongside a variety of conservative tropes central to petty-bourgeois American neurosis, to craft a portrait of societal collapse suitable for the pages of Breitbart. It is an outlook identical to the ideology that drove Kyle Rittenhouse and his comrades across the United States to take up arms against a mass movement they deemed a nihilistic threat to civilization itself.
This leads to the TWD’s most ambiguous terrain: its politics of race. Early in the story, the show and comic alike constituted an unapologetic celebration of localized patriarchal white power and settler colonialism. The main dramatic tension boiled down to which of the white police officers would rule the new world, secure leadership of the same white family, and tame the wild all over again, with a smattering of nonwhite characters thrown in. This was not lost on critics, especially of the show, who largely failed to recognize its overt rightist politics and instead decried its lack of diversity among the murderous bands of survivors. Befitting “diversity and inclusion” under capitalism, TWD responded by increasing the heterogeneity of its cast, while retaining the same political core. TWD thus remains a tale of white “revanchism,” as scholar Neil Smith once put it, meaning the imperative to take back terrain from the mindless destruction of a feral underclass. This a common political outlook dating back to the urban rebellions of the 1960s and Nixon’s “Silent Majority” and the rise of “law and order,” running through the aggressive gentrification of American cities in the 1990s and ‘00s, and underlying the Trump movement and Blue Lives Matter in the present. It’s likely not a coincidence that the silver long barrel revolver toted by Grimes as a symbol of his authority bears a striking resemblance to Charles Bronson’s 475 Wildey Magnum from the Death Wish series, the ultimate Hollywood avatar of vigilante white backlash against the urban crisis of the 1960s and the political movements of Black and Brown Power.
But as TWD rehashes familiar racial themes, it simultaneously practices the “colorblindness,” as Michelle Alexander put it, of the era that spawned it. After its first few episodes, TWD hardly mentions race at all. Earl Dixon (Michael Rooker), Daryl’s older brother and the show’s only committed white supremacist, is killed of early on, freeing Daryl to quickly overcome his ill-defined racial prejudices and join the multiracial group. It is even revealed that Daryl’s motorcycle, bearing the Nazi SS insignia, actually belonged to Earl, further exonerating him. The Maori Travis Manawa, the Korean Glenn Rhee, and even the black Michonne Hawthorne all effectively marry into whiteness, adopting a Silent Majority orientation to the menacing hordes outside their walls as they join white families and enact the same narrative driving Sheriff Grimes to fight for law and order in the face of social collapse The show’s colorblindness is especially pernicious, as TWD represents so viscerally how the deepening tribalism of our present society plays out against increasing disorder, scarcity, and a generalized state of fear. In the real world, these lines are drawn, more often than not, along the lines of race and ethnicity, which lend inescapable substance to the us versus them distinctions that serve as TWD’s bread and butter. The Walking Dead therefore offers a thoroughly racialized narrative which, through refusing to take the subject seriously, tacitly endorses the present paradigm of white power by allowing it to go unnamed.
Fight the Dead
As The Walking Dead prepares to conclude its 11th and final season, it really doesn’t matter how the story ends. With thousands of grisly deaths stretched across hundreds of hours of television, TWD has chiseled into the popular culture a barbaric vision of the present, which celebrates the worst human responses to social crisis, and alternatingly ridicules and vilifies anyone who believes in a way out. Beyond the political intricacies of the show’s worldview, which fans can debate in endless detail as fans do, this is evident enough simply in the show’s gleeful celebration of human disposability, at a historical juncture when life is cheap and getting cheaper. The regular TWD viewer might need to be reminded, as the show’s most foolish and naïve characters are wont to say, that the zombies slaughtered and dismembered by the hundreds each season with great gusto were once humans, and might be considered as such still. If the pornographic revelry of unceasing violent death can be brushed off as mere entertainment, it is clear that TWD, which offers a portal into the darkest reflection of our present world, is anything but escapism. As critics Travis Linnemann, Tyler Wall, and Edward Green write: “if you can kill a zombie, you can kill anyone.”
Does all of what has been said amount to killing the messenger? As a longtime fan of the show, I’d like to believe it. But for that to be true, TWD would have to offer a harsh reality, which is nonetheless inescapably true, rendering its creators blameless heralds of a new world coming into being. This is, however, not so clear. For a fictional world where time is commonly designated either “before” and “after,” TWD, by the metric of our own time, increasingly feels like it belongs in the time before. The comic and show debuted before Occupy Wall, the rebellion in Ferguson and Black Lives Matter, the struggle at Standing Rock, and the George Floyd Rebellion, in addition to popular struggles across the globe ranging from the Arab Spring and the movement of the squares to popular revolt throughout much of Latin America, Africa, Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. While these movements are sufficiently diverse that speaking of them in a single sentence might seem unjust, they are part of a worldwide rebuke to the proposition that surviving the present can only be undertaken by small bands of self-interested individuals, to the exclusion of all else. Such mass action, vilified in the universe of TWD as the stuff of zombie herds and their clueless enablers, serve instead as the only serious alternative to the show’s darkest reflection of our present reality becoming the only one.
The world of The Walking Dead, writes media scholar Sherryl Vint, is “one that simultaneously dehumanizes and makes monstrous these survivors. This is true both of the zombies in the series, reduced to endless walking and consuming, and those able to adjust themselves to the new order, who draw a narrow circle of community and demonize all those outside of it.” It makes sense why so many people are drawn to this show; the apocalypse has already arrived, and we struggling to survive it. But reality is not a comic book. Living under the very real threat of human extinction, facing biological contagions in our world sufficient to expose millions of our most helpless people to miserable deaths, and facing down the possibility of barbarism on a global scale overwhelming any hopes of redress, it is time to put The Walking Dead, and the reactionary pessimism it lends such visceral support, out of its misery.
 C.L.R. James, American Civilization (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1993) p. 123.
 C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins (New York: Random House, 1989 ), p. 12.
 Elizabeth McAlister, “Slaves, Cannibals, and Infected Hyper-Whites,” in Zombie Theory: A Reader, ed. Sarah Juliet Lauro (University of Minnesota, 2017), p. 71.
 Steven Shaviro, “Contagious Allegories: George Ramiro,” in Zombie Theory, pp. 7-14.
 Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (University of Minnesota, 1980), p. 335.
 Neil Smith, “Giuliani Time: The Revanchist 1990s,” Social Text 57 (Winter, 1998), pp. 1-20.
 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: New Press, 2010).
 Travis Linnemann, Tyler Wall, and Edward Green, “The Walking Dead and the Killing State,” in Zombie Theory, p. 339.
 Sherryl Vint, “Abject Posthumanism,” in Zombie Theory, p. 177.